Packers Continue to Evolve at Nickel Position

The position played at a Hall of Fame level by Charles Woodson has been given to Tramon Williams. Williams brings a different skill-set to the table than Woodson and the injured Casey Hayward, but it's allowing the Packers to get their best corners on the field.

For years, Charles Woodson played the nickel position in the Green Bay Packers' defense. Then, the torch was passed to Casey Hayward last season

With Woodson in Oakland, Hayward still sidelined by a nagging hamstring injury and Micah Hyde playing too much like a rookie, the Packers have moved Tramon Williams into the nickel role.

On the surface, it's an unusual decision, given the Packers' preference at a position that has major responsibilities in the run game. Woodson had the rare ability to make plays on the ball and play as physically as a linebacker. Hayward didn't quite have Woodson's physical element but he was physical enough and quickly emerged as a big-time playmaker. Hyde has shown flashes of that physical element but lacked the seasoning and perhaps the long speed to hold up coverage.

So, it's up to Williams, who probably weighs closer to 180 pounds than his listed 191.

"No. 1, Tramon's smart and he understands our defense," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday. "He gives us a good cover guy in there. What you're always trying to do is trying to get your best group on the field. With him inside, it puts (Davon) House and Sam (Shields) outside and we like the way both of those guys have been playing outside. Tramon's kind of the logical guy to move because he's a veteran guy that understands the defense and can move around. I think he's had a good week of practice at nickel."

While Capers said Williams is willing to "mix it up" at the nickel spot, he's never been regarded as a physical player. Thus, the defense has had to adapt a bit to accentuate Williams' skill-set. What Williams does bring is intelligence, experience and coverage skill. From a coverage perspective, a trio of Shields, Williams and House is better than Shields, Williams and Hyde.

"I don't. Not at all," Williams said on Friday when asked if he's worried about his size while playing a position that demands physicality. "I actually embrace it. You play differently in that position. You play quicker; everything is quick at that point. You make decisions more decisively at that position. So, it's cool, I feel like I play faster inside like that."

Other than learning the role when Capers arrived in 2009, Williams said he'd never played nickel in a regular-season game until this season. On Sunday, he'll be challenged by Calvin Johnson, who lines up in the slot "quite a bit," Williams said. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Johnson has run 46 routes from the slot. The Lions' other active receivers have combined for 37 routes.

"I feel that I've kind of always been smart, but you can always get smarter from seeing it in a different perspective," Williams said. "I've never really played much inside throughout my career, but now I'm getting that chance. Seeing the game from a different perspective inside, impacting the game in a different way in the rush and the passing game – I think it'll be good for the defense, I think it'll be good for my growth, it'll be fun."

Last week at Cincinnati, Shields wound up matching up against Pro Bowler A.J. Green. Last year, it was Williams as the designated stopper. Cornerbacks coach Whitt, however, said it wasn't a demotion for Williams as much as it was a new opportunity.

"We've gone in games where Tramon's covering (the No. 1 receiver) and Wood's played the nickel," Whitt explained. "Now, Tramon is playing the nickel. Tramon has a different challenge. Tramon has the challenge that Wood had. He's going to be coming on blitzes, he's going to have opportunities for sacks, fumbles, tackles for losses and interceptions. There is no demotion to what Tramon is doing. We just have another guy – just like when we had Wood just playing inside and had Tramon playing on the (No. 1) guy. There is no demotion. It's guys asked to do different things. I have full confidence that if something happened and we had to put Tramon on him, Tramon can go get the job done just as well."

Once Hayward returns, potentially next week, and has gotten his feet wet, the Packers are going to have some decisions to make. Shields seems like a lock to be the No. 1 corner, but who rounds out the pecking order?

"I feel comfortable with the group," Whitt said. "Tramon inside is something I wanted to look at in a coverage aspect already. Not in the first and second down, necessarily, but I wanted to see (in passing situations) Davon and Sam outside and possibly Tramon at a nickel and Casey at a dime and see how that looks. But I wasn't thinking about it happening on a first- and second-down option, which it is right now. Once we get Casey back, it'll be the first time that we've had all the guys at the same time this year and now we can really figure out how we want to go play some things. Casey is so natural at the nickel – he can blitz, he's instinctive, and then he can also play outside. Before he got hurt, he was playing really well in the offseason and he showed outside that he can go out there, so I'm still going to give him the opportunity to, if he's the best one, he'll go out there and play."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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